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Why the Away Story Is a Wake-up Call for Every Business Leader

Burnout-fueled growth works — until it doesn’t.

Robert Kamau / Getty Images
Robert Kamau / Getty Images

With its revelations of a culture of bullying and burnout at the luggage company Away, The Verge’s investigation lit up social media and launched a thousand hot takes.

It’s an incredible sign of the times how quickly the story — and Away’s board — moved. The piece was published on Thursday, and by Monday, Away’s CEO Steph Korey had been removed and replaced

The details in The Verge’s report portray a truly toxic culture at Away: a 3:00 a.m. Slack message from Korey, telling customer experience employees that their time off requests would no longer be considered; a manager’s request to “take a photo with your computer in bed when you get home,” as proof that employees were working; employees publicly scolded for not immediately responding to messages, even on nights and weekends.

But Away is just one symptom of a much larger affliction. Call it the hypergrowth-to-burnout pipeline. Again and again, we see promising, disruptive companies rocketing to success, but powered by a workplace culture that drives people into the ground. 

This corporate version of a devil’s bargain works until it spectacularly doesn’t. As Away illustrates, outward signs of success — the billion dollar valuation, accolades, magazine covers — can conceal a core that is, if not rotten, unhealthy and unsustainable. Executives often justify these hard-charging cultures as simply necessary to succeed in a competitive world. Employees, at least while they last, may feel fortunate to be working for a brand they admire, believing that long hours and questionable treatment simply come with the territory. This was the case at Away, where, according to The Verge, employees on the customer experience team “felt lucky, even chosen. They worked long hours and bonded over crazy customer stories, intoxicated by the energy of the company.”

But burnout inevitably takes its toll — on individuals and on the company at large. Sometimes, as at WeWork and Uber (where I was a board member from 2016 to 2019), it does so in dramatic fashion. At many other companies, the damage is less sudden and abrupt, but ultimately no less destructive. 

Increasingly, a healthy and sustainable culture is going to be what separates the big players — the ones who are in it for the long haul and really make an impact — from the flavors of the moment.

Companies that prioritize employee well-being will see benefits across the board. Because culture is more than just a nice-to-have. It’s more than setting up a ping pong table and stocking the kitchen with high-end coffee and free snacks. A thriving culture is crucial for a company’s ability to attract and retain top talent, drive revenue and secure a competitive advantage. And for unicorns and disruptors, a strong, sustainable culture is vital for succeeding beyond the honeymoon period of valuations, breathless press coverage and the IPO roadshow.

According to one study, 58% of respondents said they would leave a job for a company with a better culture. The first shift business leaders need to make is to avoid the “growth above all mindset,” which, as we saw at Away, became cancerous, metastasizing into every area of the company and subsuming all other values, including empathy and trust. The second mindset shift that needs to happen is ending the delusion that employees have to burn out in order for a company to succeed.

At Away, it’s also worth noting that the tensions at the company were centered mostly around the customer experience team, which struggled to keep up with customer complaints and queries. But what ultimately led to the inflection point at the company — and the change in leadership — wasn’t the internal effects of how those employees were being treated (as bad as those effects were), it was customers and dedicated fans of the company finding out about that treatment. In other words, employee experience is customer experience. People don’t just value culture at their own workplaces, they want the brands they engage with — even the company they buy luggage from — to reflect their values. All employees are brand ambassadors, and all divisions of a company — along with all aspects of company culture — are marketing. 

Company culture affects everyone, and everyone has a role to play, but it starts at the top. Leaders’ words, actions and priorities are incredibly important in setting the tone. So what does it look like when this happens?

Tim Junio is the co-founder and CEO of Expanse, a fast-growing cybersecurity startup (formerly called Qadium). I met him last year at an IVP dinner (IVP is an investor in both Expanse and Thrive), and we talked for a long time about how the Silicon Valley delusion that you need to burn out in order to succeed needs to change. Shortly after, he sent me an email he had just sent to all his employees, which we published on Thrive. “We have many years to go on our journey, and I care enormously that everyone feels happy, excited, and effective as we continue to build,” he wrote. You can read his full email here, but here are a few of the best practices he shared:

  • Sleep the right amount your body needs, and plan your schedule around it. 
  • Improve the quality of your sleep by giving yourself time to unwind before you get into bed, when possible. 
  • Identify what rhythm works for you for disconnecting from work for a bit on a regular basis, including building in time to think about higher-level things related to your job. 
  • Take your vacation, and take your vacation seriously.

These are small suggestions, but when leaders repeatedly and authentically send the message that burnout will not be glorified and that people need to take care of their well-being, it adds up. It’s a powerful way to demonstrate that living a sustainable life — and empowering employees do so as well — is the best way to achieve sustainable growth. As more and more companies see the benefits of this approach — and the costs of continuing on the dead-end path to burnout — I predict that 2020 will be the year when leaders begin to give company culture the respect it truly deserves.

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